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Medieval Sourcebook:
Tales of Relics


The following tales are from sermon stories from these three writers.

Jacques de Vitry was born probably before 1180, studied theology at Paris, and was ordained priest in 1210. He preached first in 1213 in favor. of the crusade against the Albigenses. The following year he led a large army of crusaders to the siege of Toulouse. He next preached a crusade against the Saracens. In 1214 he was elected bishop of Acre, was approved by the Pope in 1215, and was consecrated 1216. He took a prominent part in the crusade of 1218-1221. In the winter of 1219-1220 he wrote his well known historical work. In 1226 or 1227 he resigned his bishopric, and devoted himself again to preaching the crusade against the Albigenses. In1228 he was made a cardinal, and bishop of Tusculum. In 1239, probably, he was elected patriarch of Jerusalem. He died about 1240. The anecdotes quoted are taken from the exempla in the sermones vulgares, ad status or ad omne hominum genus, 74 in number. Thes eexempla have been edited with great learning by Thomas Frederick Crane, M. A., under the title The Exempla of Jacques de Vitry, for the Folk Lore Society, 1890. This is the best work on the subject.

Étienne de Bourbon, a Dominican, was born towards the end of the twelfth century and died about 1261. In his youth be passed some years in the schools of the church of Saint-Vincent at Macon. Later be studied at the University of Paris. In his writings there are a number of interesting anecdotes concerning student-life in his days. As an inquisitor he acquired much information about,the heretics, which he incorporated in his writings. Although he was zealous in his work he was prudent, and rejected many fables current about the heretics. He wrote sermons which were popular and widely used. The title shows his purpose, Tractatus de diversis materiis praedicabilibus. The tales used in this pamphlet are from Anecdotes Historiques, Légendes et Apolologues tirés du recueil inédit d'Etienne de Bourbon, dominicain du xiiie siècle, publés pour la Société de l'Histoire de France, par A. Lecoy de la Marche, Paris, 1877.

Caesar of Heisterbach was born about 1180, possibly in Cologne, and died before 1250. He was " master of the novices " and prior in the monastery at Heisterbach. His Dialogue was one of the commonest sources for sermon-stories. The best edition of his work is Caesarii Heisterbacensis monachi ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculroum, edited by Strange, 2 Vols., Paris, 1851. The biographical facts given above are taken mainly from the introductions to the editions cited.

The object of these sermon-stories was to arouse interest and to convey moral truths. Jacques de Vitry said, " It is necessary to employ a great many proverbs, historical stories and anecdotes, especially when the audience is tired and begins to gett sleepy." Etienne de Bourbon said that Jacques owed his great success to this practice. The use of anecdotes spread rapidly and widely, and many collections have been preserved. For bibliographies and examples see… Hauréau: Notices et Extraits de quelques manuscrits latins de la Bibliothéque nationale, 6 vols., Paris, 1890-93.

TALES OF RELICS

I. THE RELICS OF ST. MARTIN HEALED TWO BEGGARS
AGAINST THEIR WILL.

Jacques de Vitry, CXII. (p. 52.)

Moreover, although poverty and other tribulations are advantageous, yet certain ones abuse them. Accordingly we read that when the body St. Martin was borne in procession it healed all the infirm who met blind, Now there were near the church two wandering beggars, one began to converse together and said, "See, the body of St. Martin is now being borne in procession, and if it catches us we shall be healed immediately, and no one in the future will give us any aims, but we shall have to work and labor with our own hands.', Then the blind man said to the lame, "Get up on my shoulders because I am strong, and you who see well can guide me." The y did this; but when they wished to escape, the procession overtook them; and since, on account of the throng, they were not able to get away, they were healed against their will.

2. CONCERNING A MERCHANT TO WHOM A HARLOT SOLD THE ARM OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST.

Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. VIII, Cap. LIII. (Vol II, pp. 125-26)

Not long ago a certain merchant of our country, crossing the sea, saw the arm of St. John the Baptist in his hospital, and desired it. Knowing that the custodian of the relics was following a certain woman, and knowing that there is nothing which women of that class cannot extort from men, he approached her and said, " If you will procure for me the relics of St. John the Baptist of which your lover has the charge, I will give you a hundred and forty pounds of silver." She, craving the sum offered,' refused to consent to the hospitaler until he obtained the sacred arm. This she immediately delivered to the merchant and received the promised weight of silver.

Do you perceive how great a mockery? just as formerly the head of St. John was delivered by Herod to a lascivious girl as a reward for dancing, and by her was given to an adulterous mother, so at this time, the hospitaler, no less wicked than Herod, gave the arm of the same saint to a base woman as the price of fornication, and by her it was sold to the merchant.

The latter, not consigning it to the ground like Herodias, but wrapping it in purple, fled almost to the extremities of the earth and arrived at the city of Gröningen, which is situated at the entrance to Frisia. There he built a house and, hiding the arm in one of the columns, began to grow exceedingly wealthy. One day when he was sitting in his shop, some one said to him, '- The city is burning and the fire is now approaching your house." He replied, "I do not fear for my house, I have left a good guardian there." Nevertheless he arose and, entered his house. When he saw the column unmoved he returned to his shop. All wondered what was the cause of so great confidence.

When questioned about the guardian of his house, he replied ambiguously; but when he realized that his fellow-citizens noted it, fearing lest they might employ violence against him, he took out the arm and delivered it into the care of a certain hermitess. She, unable to keep the secret, told a man of her charge, and he told the citizens. They immediately took the relics and carried them to the church. When the merchant tearfully requested his relics, they replied harshly. When they asked him of what saint these were the relics, he not wishing to betray the facts said he did not know. Nevertheless in grief he deserted the city and, falling into poverty, he became very ill not long after. When he feared death, he disclosed to his confessor what the relics were and how he had obtained them.

When the citizens learned this, they made a receptacle in the form an arm, of silver and gilt, adorned with precious stones, and placed the relics in it. I saw the same arm two years ago and it is covered with skin and flesh. I also saw there among the relics a small gold cross of Frederick the Emperor, which had been given to the above mentioned merchant at the same time as the arm.

NOVICE: Since no one of the saints is believed to be greater than St. John the Baptist, why is it that we do not read of any miracle in his life ?

MONK: So that God may show that holiness does not consist in miracles, but in right living. For after death he was illustrious by innumerable and great miracles. The aforesaid citizens, in truth, fearing for the relics of St. John, built of planks a very strong little house behind the altar, and by night they had a priest sleep in the top of it. The house was so shaken under him on the first night that he felt no slight horror. In the second night truly it struck him when asleep and hurled him onto the pavement. When one of the rulers of the city fell sick, at his request Theodoric, the priest of the church, carried the arm to his house and unwrapped it. He found the arm, as well as the purple in which it was wrapped, covered with fresh blood, He told me this with his own mouth. A priest cut off a small piece of flesh from the same arm, and when he carried it off secretly in his hand, he felt as much heat from it as if he had been carrying burning coal. Many miracles and hearings indeed were wrought in that city b the same relics through the merits of St. John the Baptist.

3. ARTICLES WROUGHT BY BRIDLE FALSELY CALLED A RELIC

Caesar of Heisterbach, Dist. VIII, Cap. LXX. (Vol. II p. 140)

A certain knight loved most ardently the above-mentioned martyr, St. Thomas of Canterbury, and sought everywhere to obtain some relic of him. When a certain wily priest, in whose house he was staying, heard of this he said to him, "I have by me a bridle which St. Thomas used for a long time, and I have often experienced its virtues." When the knight heard this, and believed it, he joyfully paid the priest the money which the latter demanded and received the bridle with great devotion.

God truly, to whom nothing is impossible, wishing to reward the faith of the knight and for the honor of his martyr, deigned to work many miracles through the same bridle. The knight seeing this founded a church in honor of the martyr and in it he placed as a relic the bridle of that most wicked priest.

University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]. Vol II, No 4, pp. 11-14


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© Paul Halsall July 1997
halsall@murray.fordham.edu